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The American Civil War, Dollywood-Style

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There are moments when you find yourself reassessing your life — for instance, when you find yourself watching four small children pursue four terrified chickens around an arena as 1,000 people cheer and stamp their collective feet.

Welcome to the strange, strange world of Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. As mentioned a few months back, NY Conversation has managed to cultivate a sideline in travel writing, and while such sideline hasn’t exactly financed downpayments on the Ferrari just yet, it has provided the opportunity to travel to weird and fascinating destinations... like Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.

This part of Tennessee is Dolly country — she grew up here, and the area is full of Parton-related attractions. The most well-known is Dollywood, but in terms of sheer cultural strangeness, even an entire Dolly Parton-themed theme park is outdone by the Stampede: a hokey and ... um, let's just say historically loose retelling of Civil War history featuring horse-riding stunts, "indoor pyrotechnics" and a gargantuan meal for every attendee. It's been packing out a 1,000-seat arena every night for 24 years.

The arena in question is housed in a large building that looks like a super-sized theme restaurant. When you first enter, you’re ushered into a well-lit hall where everyone is sitting at long tables, like an old school dinner assembly. In one corner, a band works its way mechanically through novelty bluegrass covers of songs like "YMCA" and "Smoke on the Water". The waitresses are happy to serve you soft drinks (and only soft drinks — there's no booze here, because Jesus) in a “FREE* Souvenir Boot Mug”!

Once the band finishes, everyone is ushered into the main arena, where we’re cautioned against taking photos. The arena, it turns out, is bisected by an imaginary Mason-Dixon line that divides the arena into either North or South. We are  encouraged to boo at our new enemies on the other side of the sandy performance area. Thankfully, NY Conversation ends up in the Union, although judging by the gusto of the booing heading our way from the Confederation, we're one of a very few grateful yankees.

When sufficient boo-ing has been done, the lights dim and the Dixie Stampede's version of Civil War history starts to unfold, largely in the form of stunts performed by horses and their riders (the latter dressed in mock military uniforms). Some of the stunts are undeniably impressive: one particularly daring performer manages to ride two horses simultaneously, one foot on each saddle, and smiles happily at the crowd as both horses fly at breakneck pace around the arena. 

The history is less palatable. Slavery isn’t mentioned at all, which would perhaps be surprising if you hadn’t noticed that a) the audience here is 99.9% white and b) we are a long way south of the real Mason-Dixon Line. The Native Americans who inconveniently used to own the land upon which the Stampede is played out do feature, albeit only for one strange and cursory scene at the start of the show. The scene involves a woman daubed with day-glo face paint and dressed as a bird, who flutters dreamily around the arena until “harsh reality intrudes” in the form of the first white settlers, who arrive looking merry and full of pioneering spirit. The Native Americans are not heard from again.

Meanwhile, harsh reality for vegetarians intrudes in the form of the menu — or, more accurately, the lack thereof. There’s only one “supper” to be had here, and it’s Dolly’s famous rotisserie chicken. Everyone gets one each. One. Entire. Chicken. And in case that's not enough, you also get a baked potato, "creamy vegetable soup" — no healthy vegetable soup here, thank you very much — a corn cob, a “home-made biscuit”** and some pork for good measure. In fairness, I check the Stampede's website later that evening and find that it does make vague allusions to a possible vegetarian option if you phone in advance. I can't imagine that line gets called very often.

So as the horses go round and "yee-has" are uttered and feet are stamped endlessly, I find myself starting to do sums. There’s about 12 people per row between each aisle, by five rows, by eight aisles... That’s about 480 people on each side of the arena. Which means about 960 people in total, plus a few at the back... Say 1,000 all up. Which means that according to such rough estimates, about 8,760,000 chickens have been basted with Dolly’s special seasoning and roasted over the course of the Dixie Stampede’s lifetime. And this is one of three venues. And sometimes they do several shows a night. I start to feel slightly ill.

As I finish my mental arithmetic and turn my attention back to the arena, it turns out to be audience participation time. Four children are extracted from the crowd — something that does have some historical precedent, I guess, since the Civil War involved so many child soldiers that it's been called the "Boys' War". There is less historical precedent for what happens next, but if historical inaccuracy is a constant theme here, then so is doing unpleasant things to chickens. And so it transpires that each child is presented with, yes, a chicken. The idea is that they chase their assigned bird to the other end of the arena; the terrified chook that arrives first wins a medal for the "Union" or the "Confederacy".

Quite what it must be like to be one of these chickens — pursued by something several orders of magnitude larger than you around an unfamiliar environment that smells like the roasted remains of a thousand members of your own species — is really rather awful to think about. It doesn't appear that anyone else is having such thoughts, because everyone cheers raucously at the spectacle. The chickens are followed by a pig race, more horse-related stunts and then a final points tally. Tonight, the North wins. The vast majority of the audience seems underwhelmed by this outcome.

And then, finally, there’s an appearance by Dolly herself! Well, on video, anyway. A film is projected onto a giant screen at the back of the arena, and Video Dolly explains that the lesson the Civil War taught her is that there are no borders, and there is no North and South. Why? Because we’re all human beings? Born equal? Possessed of fundamental and inalienable rights that should preclude anyone with a shred of decency buying and selling other people like cattle? 

No, silly — it's because we’re all Americans! As Video Dolly breaks into a song called "Color Me Red, White and Blue", which proclaims the virtues of a country that stands for freedom and justice for everyone***, a large number of my fellow attendees stand and place their collective hands over the alleged location of their collective hearts. I take the opportunity to slip away quietly to the bathroom. Something — possibly the chicken, but in all honestly probably not — is making me feel more than a little queasy.

* with every $5 purchase
** "home-made" does not imply that the product was made in a home; see terms and conditions for details
*** except you-know-who, obviously